Jan. 11, 2001 — How muscadine vines were used to help Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest get from Oxford to Memphis and destroy the supplies of invading Federal troops in North Mississippi is a bit of lore passed on to me by John Bagwell of Bruce.
It was early 1864 and Union Gen. A.J. Smith was preparing to invade north Mississippi to destroy Forrest’s forces, which had driven Smith back into Tennessee. Between that skirmish and the invasion of Memphis, Forrest had won his decisive “perfect battle” at Brice’s Crossroads.
The battles had taken their toll and when Smith again invaded he backed the Confederate troops from the state line down to Oxford because Forrest’s command of fewer than 10,000 was one-half of Smith’s.
Confederate Gen. Dabney H. Maury, temporary commander of the Department of Mississippi, later wrote that he received the following telegraph in cipher: “The enemy has 27,000 men, has more cavalry than my entire force. I cannot check him, but with your permission will pass behind him into Memphis and destroy his stores, forcing him to retreat.”
Taking 2,000 of his best mounted troops Forrest skirted the oncoming forces by going west of their right flank on the 100 mile advance to Memphis.
Major hurdles along the way were Hickahala Creek and the Coldwater River, north of Senatobia.
That’s where the muscadine vines came in.
These vines were not like the little bushes you seen growing at the enolgy (wine-making) vineyards at Mississippi State, or down in Wayne County.
They were the big, Tarzan swinging-size — as big as your arm, or maybe your leg, said to grow nowhere in the world outside the southeastern United States. They are also credited with growing bigger and longer vines in the rich alluvial bottom land of the area.
The muscadine plant is more noted for its fruit, not its vine, even though many of us — just because they were there, I suppose — tried to smoke them.
The grapes were used for making jelly and, of course, wine. At the Enology Lab at State years ago a group of us tasted various combinations of white and muscadine wines. I decided the plain muscadine juice tasted better than the wine or any of its mixtures. I am not sure if this made me a very poor or a very good connoisseur, but at this stage of life it is a very moot question.
Back to Forrest. There were no bridges; the rivers and creeks were at flood stage and he had only a small ferry boat.
So, he sent an advance detachment of his best mounted troops with instructions to “fell four trees, two on either bank, leaving stumps convenient for the support of the cables, and have cut, twisted together, and in place by the time he arrived, cables made from muscadine vines.
Gen. Maury received a telegraph from Senatobia on Aug. 20 that “General Forrest has just passed here at a gallop, bound for Memphis.”
Each crossing with the ferry boat would have taken 12 hours, if the horses were required to swim, but with the muscadine bridges the whole trip was made in 36 hours.
With the cables in place, as the troops came within three or four miles, “every gin house and cabin was stripped of its flooring and as each trooper rode up he brought on his shoulder his burden of planks,” Gen. Maury recorded.
In an hour’s time of the arrival of the head of the column had crossed the Hickahala, with each of the troops walking across, single file, leading his horse. The Coldwater crossing took three hours.
On Aug. 21 Forrest arrived on the outskirts of Memphis with 1,500 men and two cannons. Five hundred horses were too worn out to finish the trip and two cannons had been abandoned, because it took 10 horses to pull each cannon on the muddy roads fast enough to keep up with the cavalry.
Houses and fences nearby were torn down and used to bridge the three remaining streams near Memphis, and “at the crack of dawn, Sunday, he dashed into Memphis and occupied the city.”
Gen. Maury received a telegram from Memphis: “Heavy cannon firing about Memphis.”
Maury reported, “The commanding Union General fled in his nightclothes, leaving his uniform, sword, etc., to the Confederates.
“Forrest’s objective was completely accomplished by destroying stores and spreading panic … which was communicated to Gen. Smith. On hearing that Forrest had occupied Memphis, Smith is said to have thrown up his hands, crying, “We are Gone Up!” and, at once, retreated out of Mississippi.
“Forrest drew his men out of Memphis and by 4:00 Sunday afternoon was on his way back to Mississippi.”
The muscadine vines had made it possible to defeat the last Yankee invasion of North Mississippi.